There is a reason why the best road trips enjoy legendary status. They are epic and reckless and completely thrilling and hitting the open road in a self-contained van may be the only true way to beat the predictability of prefabricated holiday packages and travel agent schmooze.
But along with the freedom and the seamless blur of ever-changing scenery, there still remains the very real promise of pot holes and rotting road kill. So, at the risk of putting a dampener on what will be the trip of a lifetime, here are a few tips of what to expect for the uninitiated.
It’s a peculiar sensation to wake up in the throes of a passionate embrace with a damp bath towel. It’s even more troubling when you realise the towel is not your own but in fact belongs to an acquaintance with a poor hygiene record who now happens to be performing nude squat thrusts mere millimetres from your nose.
Such is life on a van tour.
It’s a simple matter of biology. Humans aren’t designed to co-exist in a confined space for extended periods of time. The only people that see fit to buck this rule are van enthusiasts and those in correctional facilities.
Sharing the interior of a van with two or more fellow travellers will be a genuine challenge for anyone who eats their pizza with a knife and fork. After a week or two on the road your once newly-minted van will be awash with diverse strands of DNA – a heavy concept for a true germophobe.
The trick to surviving is to forgo any thoughts of scented skin lotions and regular wash cycles and just revel in the bohemian chic of it all. And be sure to surround yourself with like-minded souls. There is plenty to be said for the relaxed attitude that permeates through a group when all members are on a similar hygiene scale. Guard against pairing Rastafarians with hairdressers.
Precedents should probably be set regarding stray underwear and acceptable levels of body odor. It is true that the smell of a shared van will be at best, mildly irritating, and at worst, thick enough to taste. So repeat offenders must be either heavily punished or held in high esteem, depending on your point of view.
There will be long periods where your route will be devoid of camping grounds and readily-accessible running water. In these situations creativity is a necessity. Befriend locals who appear to be well-groomed, at first they will spurn your advances due to the smell, but be persistent and in time they may let you use their garden hose or if you’re really charismatic you may even hit upon the Holy Grail – the hot shower.
Food and drink
In all likelihood your van set-up will have the food preparation and dining area doubling as a mattress. Despite the confined space, plenty can be achieved with a standard gas stove and a willingness to try a million variations on a single theme. That theme usually involving a sausage or sausage-related product.
There are other times when a dimly-lit interior may be your only friend in the fight against starvation. A lengthening shadow can be mighty handy in hiding the horror show of foreign canned food. Budgetary restrictions at some time or another will lead you to the deepest, darkest corners of a small-town supermarket – a place where culinary standards exist only in the minds of the most naïve. Once the necessary purchase has been made its best to retreat to the van under the cover of darkness, close your eyes and think of chicken.
A constant supply of fresh of food is not only preferable but will soon become a necessity when you realise that battery-powered cooler you bought on the cheap is the stuff of pure fantasy. The search for ice will become an all-encompassing obsession. You can harass the fishmonger at the local supermarket but it’s probably best to acclimatise to warm beer as soon as possible so when you do manage to stumble across an icy cold brew angels will weep the instant it touches your lips.
Sourcing liquor is an important facet of any cross-country jaunt. The rules are pretty simple: the cheaper the better. This isn’t the time or place for unmanageable drink orders, because when it comes to your 35th day on the road and its approaching midnight and you can’t sleep due to the oppressive heat and the mild whiff of sweaty feet, it won’t be that game of travel scrabble that will help past the time. It will be the giant carton of warm Sangria you picked up for the cost of an apple.
In-between destinations there will be hours and hours of transit, thus the issue of boredom may raise its ugly head. In reality, this should never occur. The possibilities of cheap entertainment are limitless. All that is required is an infantile sense of humour and other people.
Let the game of rock, scissors, paper decide everything. Whether it is who cooks, who does the shopping or who asks the shady local with the violent facial tick for directions. This immediately ends all arguments before they begin and will, if you become skilled at the art, allow you to have a mental stranglehold on another member of the van.
The choice of music is of vital importance. In most cases the driver will decide what music is playing, but this may be overruled at anytime if the driver displays a weakness for Simply Red. The driver should also expect to be constantly ridiculed for their inability to drive. Its often unwarranted abuse, but it gives the passengers a mild sense of superiority and helps take their minds off the smell.
Messing with random hitchhikers is another way to generate cheap laughs. When one jumps aboard have every member maintain an eerie silence while the car stereo pumps out the duelling banjos of ‘Deliverance’ at high volume. The look of sheer panic is much more entertaining than a game of Uno.
If the wrong set of personalities are cooped up in the confines of a van, the trip is doomed to fail before anyone can utter the words ‘multiple homicide’. The secret to a serene journey is a subtle combination of soft diplomacy, compromise and, when required, the occasional pinch of physical intimidation.
There is bound to be one member of the group who asserts themselves from the get-go as the leader of the pack. This will be reflected most forthrightly in their obsessive ownership of the map. Dealing with a messianic complex on a road trip is quite simple, just relent to all demands and then set about ridiculing them endlessly when your fearless leader makes a poor decision (a certainty).
The one character that has no place on a road trip is the timetable Nazi. These are the people that have a detailed itinerary in their dreams and a fascist streak in their hearts. A road trip is a wonderful opportunity to embrace the road less travelled, to get lost and then found again, to break down and then recover. It’s a chance to throw yourself off the deep end and enjoy the long lost art of travelling without sat nav and email and roadside assistance. And its pretty hard to do all that when the person in the passenger seat is timing your piss.
Dan O’Sullivan is a journalist currently living in Melbourne, Australia and is writing about his travelling adventures because it’s a free form of therapy. His favourite Beatle is George.